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How the 2023 Expansion Draft could impact the Sounders’ transfer plans

Garth Lagerwey indicated that the team is unlikely to acquire a player who might need to be protected.

Stefan Frei is a player who might be on the Expansion Draft protection bubble.
Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

On the most recent episode of Sounders Weekly, Garth Lagerway answered a question about what moves the Sounders are likely to make in the upcoming transfer window by saying, “We’re going to err on the side of keeping our team together.” He later added, “Any player we sign would very likely be unprotected at the end of the year [in the expansion draft] … In a team where we’ve had all these good performances and we can only protect 12 of them, that’s a big deal.”

While it may seem strange to consider the 2023 Expansion Draft for upcoming St. Louis City SC when the Sounders haven’t even made it halfway through the MLS season, this could be the first indication that the expasion draft could have a major impact on what is going to happen in the upcoming transfer window. Garth is certainly signaling not to expect much from the window. But, just how precarious is the expansion draft, anyway? What do the Sounders risk losing in it and how can they take steps to protect it?

In this article, I use valuations from the website transfermarkt.us as decent proxies to help determine not only how valuable each of these players is to the team going forward in future years, but also how much they could be sold for if a club team outside the US wanted to pay for them.

To begin with, there are seven players that do not have to be protected and cannot be chosen in the expansion draft because they are homegrown players age 25 and under. They include:

  • Obed Vargas
  • Danny Leyva
  • Josh Atencio
  • Ethan Dobbelaere
  • Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez
  • Reed Baker-Whiting
  • Dylan Teves

With the remaining roster, the Sounders would only be able to protect 12 of them. They include:

Almost certainly protected

The Million-Plus Crowd:

1. Raul Ruidiaz (age 31, $8.8 million)

2. Jordan Morris (27, $5.5 million)

3. Nicolas Lodiero (33, $3.3 million)

4. Joao Paulo (31, $2.75 million)

5. Albert Rusnak (27, $2.75 million)

These are the five players on our roster currently earning over $1 million in 2022 making them either Designated Players or near-DP level TAM players. As you can see from their market values, these players are generally worth significantly more than they are being paid and would be a tragedy to allow another team to take them for free. Replacing Designated Players also represent a huge investment in scouting and recruiting, and the team has found an excellent group, something that is far from a given in MLS. Short of career-crippling injuries between now and then, I would expect little objection to protecting them. The only possible argument I could imagine would be Rusnak, given his high salary and a lack of goals and assists in 2022. But that’s only if you look at those numbers out of context of his impressive play and the different role that he plays on the Sounders. He is still a great signing with many productive years to come.

The brotherhood of the Sounders:

6. Cristian Roldan (27, $6.05 million)

7. Alex Roldan (25, $2.2 million)

These players represent huge finds, major salary bargains, and are likely to stay with the Sounders for a long time. Unprotecting them would be crazy.

The heart of the defense:

8. Yeimar Gomez Andrade (29, $4.4 million)

9. Xavier Arreaga (27, $1.65 million)

The last of the easy choices, these centerbacks have performed incredibly well for the Sounders, are in their prime and are too valuable to give up on.

Very likely protected

10. Jackson Ragen (23, $330,000)

This market value was last updated on 4/1/22 and is a true anomaly. Regan has performed at a higher level than Cissoko or Shane O’Neil from last year and recently made the MLS Team of the Week. As he is young, paid league minimum and been playing at such a level that it is painful not to start him, he seems likely a given to protect. Unfortunately, he no longer has homegrown status after being signed by Chicago. The only argument I can see to not protecting Regan is that his skills may not pan out and the Sounders are already protecting 2 quality centerbacks, so Regan is a luxury. I think that is shortsighted, as Regan already is well ahead of the best replacement player at centerback and given the Sounders’ homegrown talent at other spots, Regan is too valuable to our future to risk losing.

Either protected or sold

11. Léo Chú (22, $2.75 million)

Leo Chu is on the Sounders under the Young Designated Player program. The Sounders spent $2.5 million on a transfer fee in order to sign Chu through the end of 2024. Even though his salary is currently $550,000, only $150,000 is charged to the salary cap. This makes him especially valuable. Part of the point of this program is to allow teams to pay a transfer fee outside the salary cap to bring in a young talented player, develop him, then sell him on for more as he matures. So, while it could be argued that Leo Chu has underperformed expectations and the Sounders could weather the loss, if the Sounders were considering not protecting him, they would be smart to try to move him during this transfer window instead of leaving him unprotected at the end of the year and lose the investment that they made.

12. Nouhou (25, $2.75 million)

So this one is tricky, because if Nouhou is on the Sounders roster by the time the expansion draft rolls around, it’s a no-brainer to protect him. However, Nouhou has long been rumored to be in the market for a transfer to Europe for some time. Since then, he has performed quite well in CCL and for Cameroon, highlighted by shutting down Mohamed Salah of Egypt and qualifying for the World Cup. Due to his shutdown defense and speed, but limited offense and size, Nouhou is ideally suited to be the left centerback in a 3-back formation, a formation that the Sounders have moved away from in 2022. It seems more likely than not that Nouhou will move to Europe either this summer or after the World Cup, but as you can see from this exercise if Nouhou were to leave, it’s critical that the transaction take place before the expansion draft rather than leave him unprotected where the Sounders would not benefit from his eventual transfer fee.

Possibly unprotected

13. Stefan Frei (36, $550,000)

So, this one feels almost too painful to put into words. Keep in mind that this position assumes that both Léo Chú and Nouhou stay with the Sounders through the expansion draft and there are no other serious injuries or roster surprises. Frei is and always should be a Sounder. He is building a home on Bainbridge Island. He is a perennial Goalkeeper of the Year candidate. On the other hand, he is 36 years old. Goalkeepers are also not as highly valued in the market as field players are. And the Sounders have a younger, capable backup in Stefan Cleveland, so the drop-off in losing one of them isn’t as great. Hopefully, Frei’s age and ties to this area would dissuade St. Louis City from drafting him.

14/15. Jimmy Medranda (28, $1.65 million)

14/15. Kelyn Rowe (30, $825,000)

These are the last two players that could make a real argument for being protected. While Medranda’s transfer market value is from the end of 2021 and based on play and injuries in 2022 has probably dropped significantly from his impressive 2021 high point, Medranda is still young, talented and would be a tough piece to give up. And while Kelyn Rowe was unprotected in last year’s expansion draft, he was also a free agent at that point. This year, Rowe is signed through 2023, which makes him more valuable to St. Louis. Kelyn Rowe has been in the starting lineup for half of the Sounders games this year, and usually the first player off the bench in the other half and has been able to play left back, right back, any of the midfield positions and probably winger if needed. And while the Sounders have a deep bench, the young players are nowhere near as versatile or experienced as Kelyn Rowe, making him a very painful cog to lose.

Likely unprotected

  • Fredy Montero (34, $660,000)
  • Will Bruin (32, $550,000)
  • Abdoulaye Cissoko (22, $660,000)
  • Stefan Cleveland (28, $440,000)
  • Andrew Thomas (23, $55,000)

All of these players were unprotected in the most recent expansion draft and survived unscathed. While the Sounders would hate to lose any of them, it’s hard to put together an argument to protect any of them over the players listed earlier. That said, Bruin could be enticing as he’s a proven MLS scorer who is from the St. Louis area.


So, what does this mean for the upcoming transfer window? First, it shows that any pickup that the Sounders make in the transfer window would probably be to fill holes specifically for 2022 as there is seriously no room for anyone else on this protected list. That doesn’t preclude picking up a veteran who has fallen out of favor with their team like last year’s acquisition of Nicolas Benezet as a short-term fix. It also means that the Sounders have extra incentive to be sellers rather than buyers in this transfer window to protect the roster for 2023 and beyond.

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